Sharbari Zohra Ahmed made national headlines as the first Bangladeshi-American writer for the international TV series Quantico. Starring a diverse cast including Bollywood start Priyanka Chopra, Josh Hopkins and Aunjanue Ellis, the drama follows the lives of young FBI recruits who undergo 21 weeks of training to become special agents. Except, each of the characters has their own secret to hide.
With a literary profile that extends to screenwriting, film direction and even short-story writing, interestingly, Sharbari began her literary journey by debuting her short fiction collection, The Ocean of Mrs. Nagai: Stories back in 2013. A book that was 15 years in the making, which included two years spent at NYU graduate school where she completed a Master’s degree in creative writing.
Moving to New York and spending a lot of time working on her own novel, Sharbari truly got what can be called a “Hollywood breakthrough.” One fine day, receiving a message from her actress friend Purva Bedi regarding the opening for a South Asian American female writer to write for a new TV show featuring a Bollywood megastar, Sharbari was stoked. Later, she realised the opportunity was for a niche writer and there was definitely not, “a rat’s chance in hell” she would make it. Dismissing any thoughts of her being chosen, she resigned back to writing her novel. Before she knew it, Jake Coburn, the executive producer, introduced her to the creator and show runner Josh Safran, and the rest they say, “is history.”
With the creators of the show being very keen on the importance of having a culturally diverse writing workforce, Sharbari explains it’s because Safran, Coburn and ABC, “wanted to make sure the storylines had authentic details that would enhance the show.”
With the show premiering last September, Sharbari has already written her first solo TV credit with the episode Clear and continues to pitch and flesh out the storyline of upcoming episodes, in what she refers to as Quantico’s “writing room.”
This week, we talk to the woman making headlines to discuss what it’s really like behind the scenes of Quantico’s screenwriting, we find out who’s her favourite character from the show and finally, we talk about how a song on powernapping by Amy Winehouse would be the ideal depiction of her life.
How does it feel to have your first solo TV credit with episode 13, Clear?
It is surreal! And I am amazed and excited. I hope people enjoy it and enjoy the whole second half of the season.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Pitching in the room. I am not used to being in a room with nine other writers for hours at a time. Ideas and thoughts are flying. I am awed by how effortlessly my fellow writers do this, while keeping all kinds of arcs and details in mind. I am still very green in that area.
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
We get in at 9am and start the room. We start working on whatever episode is on the table, all the moments, stories and ideas. If we are ready to outline the episode for the writer who is assigned to it, we pod off and start working on individual sections. Sometimes we are done by 6pm, sometimes much later. Some of the senior writers and producers have to work on weekends, sometimes we all do, though my producers have been very considerate to me on that score since I have to commute two hours each way. It’s an intense process.
Who is your favourite character from the show?
All the characters have something about them I like. I love seeing the Muslim twins do their bad ass thing. I think Caleb Haas is hilarious and fun, I love Simon’s earnest convictions, Miranda’s strength, Shelby’s feistiness. Ryan is dreamy…and well, I am so proud of Priyanka’s character, Alex. It’s terrific to see a major TV character who is a deshi and one who is smart, tough and sexy.
Three things people would be surprised to know about Quantico?
I cannot give you any spoilers. But maybe how hard we all work to write these episodes, how much thought goes into every beat, every moment.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Is the Pope Catholic? Yes. All the time.
Your top three favourite TV shows?
Right now, I love Downton Abbey, Shameless and The Affair. Before that, Gilmore Girls, Roseanne.
One fictional character that you believe resembles you the most?
Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind, without the slaves, racism, and large hats.
One TV show/ TV character you wish you had written?
There are a lot of characters and shows I love. I don’t know.
What’s the last book that moved you to tears?
Love in the Time of Cholera.
One film everyone should watch?
There are too many to list, but I would say Life is Beautiful is incredible.
One song that best describes your life?
It all depends where I am in my life. Right now, anything related to a love of napping would be a good one. So if Amy Winehouse was still alive and wrote a song about power napping, that would be it. Seriously.
If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would it be?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Any pet peeves?
A tonne. But what I can no longer abide by as I am getting older are people who lack consideration for others. I can spot those a mile away.
What’s the best way to unwind?
For the sake of propriety I shall say, a good book and of course, a nap.
What makes you happy?
My son’s happiness generally. But I am the only one responsible for my happiness. So me, I make me happy. When I remember to, that is.
What’s your idea of the perfect getaway?
Someplace I can nap (see a theme?) without interruption, that is naturally beautiful and has a body of water nearby where I can splash around.
How often do you visit Bangladesh?
Not as often as I would like to.
The first thing you’d like to do when you return to Bangladesh?
Eat the food that is prepared in amma’s house, kiss my mom and dad. And then call my soul/mate/sister Aasha Mehreen Amin and tell her to pay attention to me. (She’s very busy being top brass at the Daily Star, you know.)
The best thing about Bangladesh?
My family, my wonderful friends, the food, the fact that I can speak (rickety) Bangla to my heart’s content and everyone is speaking it around me.
Other than writing for Quantico, what other projects do you have in the pipeline?
I have to finish the edits on my novel, and I am developing a project called The Line with my writing partner Ikhtisad Ahmed that is set in both Bangladesh and New York, and a screenplay called Dervish, based on a short story I wrote that was published in Wasafiri.